International Outlooks: Rush to Go Online

November 5, 2020

In our article series International Outlooks, festival and distribution professionals tell us what we should know about international distribution of films now that the business is in turmoil. In the second article, journalist Marta Bałaga interviews sales agents who speak their mind on online festivals.

Read the article in Finnish >>

By Marta Bałaga

What was supposed to be just a temporary solution, hopefully put to rest once Venice pulled off the feat of holding a physical festival in September, is here to stay. But online festivals, while already embraced by audiences bored out of their minds at home, are a more complex issue when it comes to filmmakers presenting their work this way.

With months of uncertainty behind them, and more to come if the whispers of a second, third or whichever wave are true, it’s understandable that in some cases, directors just want to get their work out. Still, as pointed out by sales agents, it’s crucial to know some of the risks first. Because once you go online, you never go back.

Record ticket sales, lower screening fees

Let’s start, as one always should, with money.

“At the start of lockdowns there was a huge rush to go online” – says Film Republic founder Xavier Henry-Rashid, pointing out that while some festivals had to convert last-minute with much of their budget already spent on ads and catalogues, others had more time to prepare.

“To talk reasonably of online festivals we need to separate ‘film screenings’ from ‘launching films’. In the case of screenings, mostly we agreed to low (to no) fees when there were clear financial implications. As we moved through the months, it became evident that there were increasing issues. Most films were pirated, with festivals offering no piracy protection services, and many were quite amateur – this is also the case with online markets. That said, festivals boasted ‘record ticket sales’, which makes me wonder why, if the costs are so much lower, they were not offering proportionally higher screening fees? Online festivals are not for the filmmaker, not for their career, not for money, not really for the culture. Only for festivals to make an income.”

Niklas Teng of LevelK chimes in: “We of course have the limited capacity for the festival venues in mind, but to be able to keep control of the accessibility to a film we usually will also require a capping of the number of views a film can have at the festival. We try to equate it to how many people would be at a regular cinema festival screening” – he says.

While in the beginning everyone was trying to be supportive, adds Ewa Bojanowska of New Europe Film Sales, at least as long as the platform used by the festival was secure, with geo-blocking in place and the number of possible viewers limited, it’s time to ask more questions now.

“Going forward, once we all had a taste what this new 2020 world looks like, we are trying to discuss options before we have to deal with them, so we try to agree on ‘what if’ from the start” – she says.

“I feel there is a slight change of thinking about the screening fees. We would usually discuss the number of screenings/fee per screening with additional information of how many people a room can fit – now we are discussing the number of people and the number of ‘screenings’ or the way the screenings are placed in the calendar, whether it’s for the whole duration of the festival or a specific time.”

Welcome to the geo-block party

Oh yes. Continuing the tradition of new sentences that were never used before the pandemic, and now seem to be uttered every five minutes, like “keep social distancing” or “cover your nose with a mask”, the general wisdom is that “geo-blocking is crucial”.

“We always require territorial geo-blocking per country, and when possible also regional” – says Teng, underlining the importance of protecting the premiere status. “It also depends on the specific title. If a film has already traveled to other festivals within a territory, then it’s easier to approve access for a wider audience of course.”

“For New Europe films, in general, we only work with geo-blocked screenings, but of course that doesn’t solve the issue yet ” – says Bojanowska. “In Europe, films are usually blocked for a specific country, but the situation in the US is trickier. Festivals sometimes ask for city/state/US-wide rights, depending on their audience and where they would usually come from. A US-wide geo-blocking covers a lot of land and a lot of people.”

As American festivals agree to geo-block for their state for example, which still broadens their usual audience, it leaves space for other states that would not be able to screen the film in another situation. Not to mention that now, most events seem generally more open to showing films that have already screened somewhere else.

“We are trying to be as specific as possible and treat these questions case by case, as we would do with offline festivals. But as a rule, non geo-blocked screenings are not an option.”

Even if a festival itself seems to be flippant about the issue, adds Rashid.

“We need to be careful whenever COVID is being used as an excuse. The situation is very different from festival to festival, but we definitely talk of some opportunism here. There was a recently signed “pledge” between festivals, pledging to respect geo-blocking and not penalize films that might screen more than once at different festivals in the same country. But when somebody mentioned the lack of transparency when it comes to box-office figures, viewing figures and industry passes, the same organization was very fast to dismiss any other concerns. It’s evident that the interests of festivals, distributors and filmmakers do not align, and this is very concerning.”

How to create “buzz” in the online world

The question that still remains to be posed, despite journalists covering online festivals quite exhaustingly, also has to to with the so-called “buzz”. Is it possible to have it during these virtual events, as the word-of-mouth recommendations suddenly came to a halt?

“In my view, a festival selection is still a festival selection – even if a festival had to move online or

proceed as a hybrid event” – says Teng. “But there is no doubt that within the industry it’s not as easy to create attention and awareness of films. I wouldn’t say that online festivals can yet create an extra “buzz”, but they still play an important part in keeping the industry rolling and the arthouse scene alive.”

“To me, these are the two biggest losses, ok, maybe three, but they are all connected” – adds Bojanowska. “First of all, it’s the cinema experience and watching the film with the audience, which helps create momentum. With online screenings, the momentum is lost and in many cases, so is the opportunity to discuss the film with other audience members. I have seen these Zoom discussions and these are great ideas, but they seem to be a replacement for the offline experience” – she says, also mentioning the example of SweatMagnus von Horn‘s take on fitness influencers granted the Cannes Label after the event was cancelled in May.

“We had a market premiere at Marché du Film online and we have managed to create ‘buzz’ in the world that was completely online. But it was really difficult for the team behind the film, since they still had to wait for their actual premiere for many months. For The Disciple [exploring Indian classical music] that we premiered ‘on site’ in Venice and then went to hybrid Toronto and NYFF, it was different than in the past years, but I think it was a good mix. I think this is something we will all learn from this pandemic and that was already coming – even if things are physical and the screenings are virtual, they should be talked about and taken care of in the online world as well.”

Which, sadly, is not always an option.

“We saw cases where many online festivals like Tribeca or SXSW flew below the radar. I received several emotional phone calls from filmmakers outlining the disaster. Sadly once films screen, even online, they become old extremely fast, and buyers will not consider them again a year later when markets reopen” – says Rashid.

“Moreover, launching films is becoming more and more difficult. At the ‘top tier’ festivals, we can talk about the ‘1 percent’ of films that get attention, and I really mean it. During Cannes, most of the deals came through the CAA market, mostly Anglo-American talent driven projects. In the meantime, on the festival side, literally only three to four titles got the kind of attention you might find at physical events. The films which tend to get attention during online festivals boast ‘sexy’ posters. They are driven by their cover, whereas physical markets will be driven by the word-of-mouth.”

“The industry buzz you can create is of course missing a lot” – agrees Salma Abdalla of Autlook Films. “Just imagine a movie like For Sama, where a crowded cinema got electrified and shocked at the same time, they needed to talk afterwards, it was a collective experience and the power of the film spread quickly all over Cannes. This kind of reaction to a film is impossible digitally. On the other hand, Caught in the Net about digital child abuse sold fantastically from CPH:DOX because it’s very timely and essential.”

Festival just like the one you travel to but in your own city

In short, before you go online, do your homework first. And prepare yourself that even in the best of cases, it just won’t be the same.

“When considering online festivals, one of the main things for us to take into account as a sales agent is to protect the rights for potential local distribution. If a film becomes accessible online within a certain territory, this could become an issue for a local distributor that would come aboard at a later stage. Another thing is making sure that the festivals are using the right tools in terms of security against piracy, like DRM protection – some smaller events and festivals do not have the infrastructure to build their own platforms or work with ones that are secure” – says Teng.

But considering all this, it’s still important for films to reach an audience, and the festivals still play a very important part in this.

“No one can know how long we will be dealing with this current situation. So in general we all win by making the films reach their audiences, and with the possibilities of online Q&As for example filmmakers can interact with them to a certain extent.”

Even though that in itself can be more exhausting than travel, says Bojanowska.

“On the one hand, it seems like it’s much easier to ‘help’ festivals this way, as a Q&A seems to be only 10-15 minutes of your life instead of two days of travel, but in fact it’s much harder” – she points out. “It takes time: setting everything up, putting some make up on, getting rid of the kids. It’s never just 15 minutes. And a lot of these Q&As are without the audience, without any live connection, so you just record the same video over and over again. In real life, the director could just say: ‘I can’t travel.’ Now, nobody wants to take ‘no’ for an answer. Even the festivals that would normally not invite guests are now asking for Q&As, so we have started to distribute ‘ready messages’ that give something extra to the audience without making it repetitive for the directors.”

Is it possible to be optimistic then, or not really? Or is it still too early to tell?

“I am afraid that online festivals are a little bit like the festival ‘just like the one you travel to but in your own city’. It’s hard to fit it in your regular schedule. But fortunately, others at the New Europe Film Sales don’t agree with me here” – says Bojanowska. “Maybe these audiences change a little – the festivals lose some, but earn some new ones that would normally not be able to go to the cinema and travel. I really hope that’s the case. But since we are still quite early into this ‘shift’, it’s hard to tell. We are hearing from a lot of festivals that they would keep the hybrid versions in the long run, and for those who have really loyal audiences, I think that will be amazing. I’m more worried about the ones without an established audience.”

Image: The Finnish reception in Cannes in 2019. Can we still imagine a future with markets like this?
Copyright: The Finnish Film Foundation / Antti Purhonen